I met up with you in Inglis, thumbed a ride to Cedar Key.

Bev's dad, Larry, maintains a trailer in Cedar Key, Florida, at which he spends five or six months every year because he understandably finds Maine winters disagreeable. A few weeks back, Bev and I, no strangers to finding things disagreeable ourselves, joined him down there for a week. And I had fun! Me! Collapse )

CURRENT MUSIC: Bright Like Neon Love by Cut Copy. I bought this for a dollar at Goodwill because I distractedly mistook it for a Cut Chemist album, but it turns out to be pretty good! Bouncy keyboard dance-pop for thirtysomething hipsters to make out to.
CORA'S CURRENT NEMESIS: Mr. Waddles, a skunk who has been hanging out under our deck.

Coyotes Ate My Chayotes! The Best I've Heard of 2011

Well, I'm glad that year is over! Weirdly, I personally had a fairly good year. My mental health has improved to a point where I feel more consistently energetic, productive, and borderline happy than I have since fourth grade, and I have discovered a genuine passion in acquiring CDs and donating them to the Orrington Public Library, which did not offer a CD collection until my sister-in-law, Audrey, became the town librarian this past summer. However, just about all of my loved ones have gone through really rotten times this year. Obviously I'm not going to enumerate the problems everyone has encountered, but suffice to say the nonstop litany of health, social, and employment woes suffered by people whose happiness I wish more than anything in the world I could ensure has put a substantial damper on the year, making me eager to euthanize it. I really hope that 2012 will be a 180-degree turnaround for everyone but me! (And any of you who had a less-than-nightmarish year, I guess.) Anyway, one more year to go, if the Mayans had anything to say about it! Which they didn't, really! 

Though I very much dislike the holiday season and attendant phenomena such as snow, televised Christmas specials, and cheer, I do always look forward to assembling my teal-deer favorite-songs-of-the-year playlist, at least until my self-imposed obligation to write up each song in detail becomes a burdensome albatross! So to kick 2011 in the butt on its way out, here is Coyotes Ate My Chayotes! The Best I've Heard of 2011. The annual disclaimer: I haven't heard every album from 2011 that I want to hear, let alone all the albums the year dropped upon us, so these are my favorite songs from the small cross-section of records that I had time, resources, and energy enough to investigate. 2011 albums I enjoyed that are not represented here include Bill Callahan's Apocalypse, John Maus's We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, Modeselektor's Monkeytown, Kurt Vile's Smoke Ring for My Halo, Wild Flag's Wild Flag, Pajama Club's Pajama Club, James Pants's James Pants, Washed Out's Within and Without, Other Lives' Tamer Animals, Electric Six's Heartbeats and Brainwaves, Africa Hitech's 93 Million Miles, Hauschka's Salon des Amateurs, Royce Da 5'9"'s Success Is Certain, Arrange's Plantation, Disappears' Guider, Ethan Gold's Songs from a Toxic Apartment, M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, and Pulseprogramming's Charade Is Gold. Less worthy albums include Esben and the Witch's Violet Cries, R.E.M.'s Collapse Into Now, David Thomas Broughton's Outbreeding, Jonti's Twirligig, Daedelus's Bespoke, Hospital Ships' Lonely Twin, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra's self-titled album. Yes, I hear about most new bands via Pitchfork these days.

If you would like a ZIP file of this mix, right-click these blue letters to download it, assuming I did this correctly. (I'll plan on keeping this link live for a month or so. Probably longer, since I will likely forget to take it down! Or possibly for less time, if I start getting arrested under the idiotic and dangerous Stop Online Piracy Act! Who knows what twists and turns this crazy world will take.) [UPDATE 1/26/12: I've taken the file down since I figure pretty much everyone who wanted it has it by now. But if someone should happen upon this post in the future and want a copy of the mix, let me know and we'll figure out a way to get it to you.] As always, if you have a rebuttal or your own playlist, reply and I'll post it on the appropriate page on my site. Prestige!

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Luxury Expectorant: The Best I've Heard of 2010

Well, I'm glad that year is over! How many more of them are left? Can't be more than three or four, right? At any rate, here's my tracklist of the best songs I heard in 2010, delayed well past the point of relevance because of two simultaneous ear infections that rendered me largely deaf and thus not great at writing song descriptions.

Yes all right fine--even less great at writing song descriptions.

Even though it was an immensely frustrating year personally and with regard to national events, I did hear a lot of albums I enjoyed. (And lots I didn't. I am looking at you, Best Coast, Of Montreal, Lali Puna, Hot Chip, Matt K. Shrugg, Eternal Summers, David Byrne & Fatboy Slim, Dum Dum Girls, Swans, Sisters, Crowded House, Gold Panda, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Sage Francis, and Antarctica Takes It! Thank you all for standing in a big clump so that I may look at all of you at once!) Lots of runners up for this list of my favorite songs, too, including "Clusterfuck!" by Electric Six, "Hit 'Em Up Style" by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, "Don't Cry" by Deerhunter, "Cinema Star" by Black Francis, and "Grey Gardens" by Patrick Pulsinger (feat. Franz Hautzinger). As always, if you have a rebuttal or would like to contribute your own best-of mix to the page where I post those things, please e-mail me at disclaimerwill@aol.com.

With that, I give you Luxury Expectorant: The Best I've Heard of 2010.

1. Roky Erickson with Okkervil River: "Devotional Number One" (2:17) Back when I was a churchgoer, I heard a pastor describe an inarticulate individual who would pray by reciting the alphabet over and over on the theory that God would take those letters and arrange them into the words that the individual felt but couldn't summon, and God looked with great favor upon this person because what's in your heart is more important than whatever fancypants wordsmithery you can... uh... do. It's an annoyingly unlikely anecdote, but its point is difficult to argue against, paticularly when you're confronted with something like this blissful "devotional" from psych-rock casualty Roky Erickson. Over a microcassette-quality acoustic guitar backing, Erickson mewls an original biblical tale that's so innocently cracked and flaky that a literal interpretation would be challenging ("Jesus met Moses drinking from a well/Moses had thought he was Jesus/Moses had just got back from hell"), but whose intent is audibly so full of genuine love and awe that it's more moving and majestic than any more straightforward song of praise I can imagine. From True Love Cast Out All Evil.

2. The Extra Lens: "Adultery" (1:35) Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle may, at this point, rival the Coen brothers in his fondness for creating weak-willed characters who make poor decisions and fail to find happiness before they land with a splat. In his moonlighting role as half of the Extra Lens, Darnielle's fascination with humanity's capacity for disappointment feels even more acute than usual, goaded on by like-minded indie-rocker Franklin Bruno (who leads Nothing Painted Blue, about whom I know only that their album Placeholders is staggeringly uninteresting) and best exemplified by this quick, infectious little strummer. Buttressed and belied by Bruno's enthusiastic, chunky lead guitar, Darnielle's full-nasality-ahead baying documents the beginning of a joyless and instantly regrettable extramarital affair that, we can assume, will continue indefinitely simply because it's something to do. In John Darnielle's America, that is probably the citizenry's most commonly acted-upon motivation. From Undercard.

3. Devo: "March On" (3:50) Devo has never had much use for complex melodies. It makes sense, of course, as writing snide, memorable anthems for a rapidly disintegrating species has always been their shtick; regardless of the clever musicianship on display in songs like "Deep Sleep" and "Gut Feeling," the joke at the core of their songs has always been that a planet full of damaged mutants couldn't be counted upon to remember more than two or three notes per song if their lives depended on it. Hell, Devo's greatest song, "Smart Patrol/Mr.DNA," mines its hooks from its three vocalists' distinct speech inflections rather than any identifiable tune. The fuzzy electropop of "March On," though, dispenses with this custom and in so doing becomes the sole highlight of Devo's first album in 20 years (which is otherwise rather a dire affair). Its melody--particularly in a celebratory bridge that luxuriates in the futility of everything--is arguably the most complexly satisfying that the band has ever written, and Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh harmonize far better than you'd think their flat Ohioan larynxes would be capable of. From Something for Everybody.

4. Glasser: "Apply" (4:59) As long as Kate Bush's Hounds of Love and Bjork's Post keep spurring women to make music with thrumming synths and go-for-broke singing that may feature any number of amusing mouth noises, I will keep putting those women on these year-end "best of" lists. Fair warning. From Ring.

5. Dean & Britta: "I'll Keep It With Mine" (Scott Hardkiss Remix) (4:50) While this sweetly self-effacing Bob Dylan song has been covered so many times that I couldn't say whether Dean & Britta's version is the best, I can definitely say it does a better job of showcasing Dylan's intended melody than many of the best-known versions floating around. (Fairport Convention discarded much of the original tune in favor of ponderous folky fluff; Nico's version is marked by her characteristic graceless bleating; Marianne Faithfull's attempt sounds for all the world like a field recording of a rusty handcar limping down the rails; etc.) I don't claim to understand why it was deemed necessary to autotune Britta Phillips's perfectly lovely voice, but her breathy emotion handily outweighs that weird distraction, and the arrangement is otherwise a smartly underplayed complement to the song, slowly widening from Dean Wareham's gentle strumming to an inviting string section playing basically the same part. Did you know Britta Phillips was the voice of Orel's mom on Moral Orel, by the way? Now you do! From 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests.

6. Stars: "The Last Song Ever Written" (3:16) I turned 30 this past year, and during one of the periods of mortality-heavy introspection that followed that calamity, I realized that I tend not to cry at pop songs anymore. Ten years ago, just about every artist--from Nick Drake to the Apples in Stereo--functioned as a divining rod to my tear ducts, but in the intervening time, I seem to have developed a more dispassionate appreciation of music overall. While in midlife crisis mode, I feared that this wasn't a positive indication of greater emotional stability than I'd enjoyed as an oversensitive 20-year-old, but was in fact a symptom of complete desensitization that would eventually turn me into an unpopped kernel of a human being, expending all my energy on nothing more socially constructive than griping about how damned slow this so-called "express checkout" lane is moving. My worries were at least diminished somewhat by finding myself sobbing at this morbid stunner from Stars, which begins as a bleak, hollow drone (blackly teasing, "You only need songs when you're young," which is the line that kicks me right in the breadbasket) and then busts out the warm, synth-drizzled homesickness at the precise moment you're at your loneliest. From The Five Ghosts, my favorite album of the year.

7. The Human Field: "Urban Cassock (for Paul Tillich)" (6:25) Though I certainly can't claim I've heard all the electronic music that's been released over the past few years, it feels like it's been a while since I've heard any IDM of the sort that was so fashionable (and that I so loved) in the late '90s and early '00s: Even conceding that Aphex Twin's misanthropic manifestos and Mouse on Mars's flippant Teutonic hodgepodge are basically inimitable, what has happened to IDM's encrypted rhythms and melodies that sound like random number generators were programmed to operate within a set musical scale? Is it just a failure of ambition that has made this type of thing obsolete and made way for the rise of dubstep, which is comparatively as exciting as a freaking slotcar race? Thankfully, mercifully, the exceptionally intelligent, Ypsilanti-based musician Michael Stohrer has plugged this hole. "Urban Cassock" is brimming with sterile reverb, rat-in-a-maze synths, and, most importantly, a structure that actually sounds like someone thought it through and didn't just initiate a loop and go out to get a bagel. As it unfolds, it plays like a belated missing link between the icy numeracy of Boards of Canada's Music Has the Right to Children and the aerodynamic kinesis of Plaid's Double Figure. If Michael keeps this up, Tadd Mullinix will seriously have a hard time defending his throne as Washtenaw County's reigning electronica kingpin. From 808s and Headaches, which you can download for free here, and should. (His "electronic fusion" project Launchfield is also worth a listen, incidentally. I should probably also note that I personally know Michael from George Starostin's old message board.)

8. Tobin Sprout: "You Make My World Go Down" (2:44) I always looked forward to guitarist Tobin Sprout's compositions on mid-period Guided by Voices albums, not only because of his gift for memorably stately melodies but because his songs' cooing maturity offered a much-needed counterpoint to Robert Pollard's scattershot spontaneity. In his solo career, however, Sprout has added more and more sugar to the mix on each successive album, and his lo-fi pop sophistication has at times caramelized into a gummy sedative; Neil Diamond with a four-track. How nice, then, to hear him bust out a number of unsuccored bitterness! This is about as punk as Sprout gets, with guitars that sprint (but sprint courteously, being mindful of fellow pedestrians), a third verse that's given over to unmusical noise (but a pleasant sort of unmusical noise that seems to be the speaking voice of a young girl), and lyrics about someone's poisonous effect on the narrator's life (but delivered in Sprout's typically measured, nonjudgmental intonation). Sprout appears to be such a wholly content fellow that even his attempts at sneering are closer to a knowing smile. I'm glad for him. From The Bluebirds of Happiness Tried to Land on My Shoulder.

9. The Suzan: "Devils" (2:52) The vocals might be off-key and the song might be underwritten, but this garagey snack from Japanese band The Suzan has two things going for it: The stomping, breathless percussion (in which the drums are augmented by some sort of phased clucking noise) and a spluttery organ part that sounds like keyboardist Rie is just itching to mash her whole palm down on the keys and see what kind of wonderful loud noise she can make. Sometimes that sort of enthusiasm is all one needs out of a three-minute rock song. From Golden Week for the Poco Poco Beat.

10. Bottomless Pit: "Summerwind" (4:15) It comes as no surprise, upon hearing Bottomless Pit's jury-rigged and unvarnished compositions, to learn that at least one of their members (ex-Seam drummer Chris Manfrin) is a veteran of the fecund mid-'90s Chapel Hill college-rock scene. A nostalgia-inducing example of that sound, "Summerwind"'s rhythm struts, the fuzzbox guitars are pushed into separate channels to emphasize their appealingly unstructured interplay, and Andy Cohen (not the insufferably attention-hungry Bravo network executive) manages the Mike Watt-style feat of somehow hitting all his notes without doing anything that counts as singing. I tend to think that the nonspecific lyrics--like those of fellow indie scrappers Stephen Malkmus and Isaac Brock--are too self-satisfied and tangled to make attempts at comprehension worthwhile, but that doesn't mean you won't be memorizing them to allow you to perform an impromptu duet with Cohen in your car. From the casually exquisite Blood Under the Bridge.

11. Sun City Girls: "Black Orchid" (3:06) The Sun City Girls' dauntingly humongous and varied discography came to a tragic end in 2010, with Funeral Mariachi obliquely eulogizing their late drummer Charles Gocher, Jr. to cap their career. "Black Orchid" is an extended plaintive wail that keeps breaking the fourth wall to stop the song in its tracks and whisper potentially vital information to the listener in a language I cannot identify, like an audio guide in a foreign museum. Frankly, I'm nowhere near worldly enough to identify the regional influence(s) of this track at all--the keening female vocals sound Middle Eastern to me, while the disquieting stop-and-go nature of the song makes me think of Chinese music for what may be no good reason--but in spite of their smartass streak, brothers Richard and Alan Bishop are well studied enough to avoid either facile parody or pretentiousness. (I gather they've both traveled extensively, and Alan is co-head of Seattle's invaluable Sublime Frequencies label, which has released a ton of secondhand music recorded in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.) Regardless of all the things about the song I do not understand, I can tell you definitively that it's haunting. From Funeral Mariachi.

12. Janelle Monae: "Cold War" (3:23) Janelle Monae deservedly drew raves for her debut LP this year, a giddy concept album about a runaway android in a Blade Runner future (an odyssey that began on her terrific first EP, Metropolis, Suite I: The Chase), and "Cold War" is the most exciting song of the batch by a hair. It's maybe 10% faster than your typical post-OutKast R&B dance number, meaning it bops and sways as crazily as the final moments of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, even before the whipcrack guitar solo arrives. Furthermore, Monae is smart enough to know that her vocal strengths will shine even without falling into counterproductive melisma; instead, she simply gives her clear-throated all to lines like "I was made to believe there's something wrong with me, and it hurts my heart," and it brings an immediate and philosophically interesting amount of soul to her robot narrator's journey. From The ArchAndroid.

13. Owen Pallett: "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt" (5:08) With a voice like Peter Cetera, a Scrabble champion's vocabulary, and a stated guiding principle of "putting so many notes on the page that the paper turn[s] black," Owen Pallett could easily come across as an insufferable showboat. Luckily, the Canadian violinist and multi-instrumentalist knows precisely how to balance his technical skill with cheeky humor, instantly appealing melodies, and arrangements that effervesce with synthpop gregariousness even in the face of dense orchestral whirlwinds. "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt" is the high point of Heartland; a pip of a tune in which the album's angry protagonist makes an explicit stand against his long-resented creator... one Owen Pallett. The final chorus, in which Owen bumps his voice up an octave to powerfully maintain, "I'm never gonna give it to you!" over and over, is as apt to raise emotional goosebumps as any pop song you'll ever hear. (I highly recommend you watch the video of Owen performing this song at the Hillside Festival in Guelph. It's obviously kind of silly to read any deep cosmic meaning into the way the skies gnash as Owen stubbornly presses through its abuses with a song about a character defying his creator... but it's still a cinematically appropriate coincidence.) From Heartland.

14. The Handsome Family: "Snowball" (2:16) If none of the superlatives I've ecstatically blurted about The Handsome Family over the past few years has convinced you to at least investigate their singular pleasures, I suppose nothing I can say will. That's not going to stop me, though, because every new twist in their already quite twisted discography thrills me. This bouncy, Hee Haw-tinged ode to a high-jumping horse, for example, was evidently written and recorded for a children's music compilation. It starts off innocently enough, with a silly list of the things Snowball has been able to successfully leap, but at a crucial moment, frontman Brett Sparks slips in a minor chord as lyricist Rennie Sparks arrives at a description of Snowball's ongoing troubles with "the bad children." Following a sprightly dobro lick, old age has taken its toll on Snowball, his once-adoring fans are now murmuring about "the glue factory," and the bad children have taken his increased clumsiness as an opportunity to step up their torment of the poor fellow. (Never fear, though: There's an open-ended conclusion whose degree of happiness can easily be interpreted to fit your personal level of optimism or lack thereof.) If I would have indeed heard this song as a kid, it would have made me terribly sad and it would also have been my very favorite song. From the thoroughly enjoyable rarities compilaton Scattered.

15. Dungen: "Skit I Allt" (2:59) While the Super Furry Animals have yet to release a bad album, they also haven't released anything especially inspired since their 2001 apex, Rings Around the World. Fans impatient for a return to form may want to start paying attention to Swedish band Dungen to tide them over. I say this not just because Dungen's Gustav Ejstes and SFA's Gruff Rhys each boast singing voices that sound like they're doing an adenoidal Elvis Costello impersonation, but because the two bands share an audible affection for the fussy production of '70s pop intellects like Steely Dan and ELO, as well as a healthy respect for all that's happened in the rock world since. This isn't to say that Dungen is a mere SFA rip-off, mind you; they're contemporaneous analogues, much like Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. And at their best, as they are on this song, their logical-yet-exciting tonal shifts, playful arrangements, and spot-on harmonies make them a band worth paying attention to no matter what other acts are at the top of their game. From Skit I Allt, which translates to "The Best of SNL."

16. Boduf Songs: "Bought Myself a Cat-o-Nine-Tails" (4:45) I'm generally leery of bands who try to capture the way they think it would feel to be genuinely violently disturbed. I love a good murder ballad, but those are generally meant to be evocative rather than convincing; even Nick Cave at his most blaringly demented could never be mistaken for the genuine article (nor does he try to be). When bands try to inhabit the skin of a madman without black humor or overt literary attempts to ground the exercise in anything beyond make-believe, it usually winds up sounding laughably overwrought, like Skinny Puppy or some shit; music that takes itself too seriously for grumpy teenagers who take themselves too seriously. The secret, as Boduf Songs' Mat Sweet proves in this spare, cloaked sketch, is subtlety. Sweet plays an old upright piano so delicately that he sounds as if he's trying to avoid disturbing the spiders living inside, and barely whispers the inner monologue of a person who's been driven to literal self-flagellation in an effort to redirect increasingly murderous thoughts about a longtime mate. And as soon as you feel fully besieged by the creepiness, here's the barely perceptible sound of a computer choking and then the addition of ominous, Fever Ray-style harmonies seething, "Lay still/You breathe too much." And you make a mental note to reread The Gift of Fear to help you avoid this person in the future. From This Alone Above All Else In Spite of Everything.

17. Flying Lotus: "Nose Art" (1:58) While it's impressive for a band to be able to make their mark within an established genre, it's hard not to spare particular amazement for folks like Flying Lotus's Steven Ellison who completely corner the market on their particular music. That is, if you're in the mood for a good power-pop album, you've got superior options by the New Pornographers, the dB's, Supergrass, and a thousand other bands. On the other hand, if you want to listen to weirdo electronic music that somehow combines obsessively precise rhythmic cut-and-paste with a jazz-derived penchant for sprawling abstraction, you've pretty much got to listen to Flying Lotus and only Flying Lotus. The scampery "Nose Art" is so drastically overcompressed that it sounds like a typical drum-and-bass song turned inside-out, with the spoken samples and disembodied keyboards constantly cutting out behind the thwack and hiss of the rhythm. Then it's broken up further still by a hilariously batty bassline that sounds like a frustrated Water Wiggle trying to escape the Earth's gravitational pull. And despite the chaos, the beats manage to be slyly contagious enough to make your body shake in unfamiliar ways. From Cosmogramma.

18. Magnetic Fields: "You Must Be Out of Your Mind" (3:14) Naturally, the greatest couplet of the past, oh, five years belongs to Stephin Merritt: "I want you crawling back to me down on your knees, yeah/Like an appendectomy sans anesthesia." There are plenty of delightful touches that enrich this measured kiss-off--from the banjo hesitantly asserting itself in the arrangement to the communal vocals underpinned by Merritt's uniquely disinterested baritone--but Merritt's long-prized gift for cynical wordplay and dry sentiment has always been the Magnetic Fields' chief calling card. Even though I'm growing impatient for him to stop relying on production gimmicks to carry Fields albums (the moratorium on synths that he's imposed upon himself since 2003's i has been expanded here to drums and all electric instruments, and it's starting to feel more constraining than creatively invigorating), I will keep listening as long as he continues being the peerless lyricist that he is. And either way, this song is an unqualified keeper. From Realism.

19. Matmos & So Percussion: "Water" (7:00) Resourceful electronic duo Matmos (who assemble frequently transcendent compositions from the sounds of such strange things as rat cages, semen, and Antony Hegarty) and resourceful rhythm quartet So Percussion (a quick YouTube search results in footage of them playing on popcorn tins, bike wheels, and chains) teamed up for this year's nifty Treasure State. The two groups' abiding love of sound itself unifies them particularly seamlessly on this track: A steel drum pings an appropriately aquatic figure that slowly changes shape, like a melting icicle. Eventually we pause to listen to someone pouring bucketsful of water back and forth. Then, organ and trumpet in tow, everything blossoms into a bright, slushy expanse that so fresh that it feels like it could clear your sinuses if you inhaled deeply enough. From Treasure State.

20. Four Tet: "Plastic People" (6:33) I've never paid a lot of attention to organic-electronica presence Four Tet--I sort of remember thinking his 2005 album Everything Ecstatic was enjoyable, though I could not tell you anything more specific than that, much like I remember learning about something called "covalent bonding" in high school chemistry, but for all I know it's some sort of proprietary Monsanto cow mutagen--but this penultimate track from There Is Love in You makes me feel like I should probably go back and reevaluate him. Clearly, anyone who can create a house-tinged capsule that balances repetition and fluidity this masterfully is capable of impressive things that I may have missed. The gently insistent bonging loop that keeps the beat makes the headphone-wearing listener feel as though she's being whisked down an express elevator in some giant, modern architectural marvel. It's so mesmerizing and the arrangement is so subtly developed that the next element you're likely to notice as the song progresses is the counterpoint provided by gleaming synth bells at the two-and-a-half-minute mark. And from there, the song may lull you into a trance so efficiently that the next thing you'll notice is a feeling of vague disappointment three minutes later, when you realize the ride has stopped and you have to get out and reenter the world again. You'll be refreshed when you do, though. From There Is Love in You.

21. Shamgar's Oxgoad: "Burning Coals" (Rough Mix) (1:57) I feel like it's slightly unseemly for this list to include a song to which I actually contributed, but "Burning Coals" makes me so happy that I'm going to stick it on here anyhow. In the middle of the year, my friend, fellow critic, and erstwhile bandmate Steve Knowlton invited me to record some extra parts on top of a handful of instrumentals that he and some friends had recorded. My immediate favorite was this cozy little indie-pop sunset, led by Steve's brother John, who fills the air with keyboard strings and a gentle piano line. I am disproportionately proud of the Yo La Tengo-influenced guitar bit I came up with, and especially the chiming tone I was able to stumble upon. For the EP version, Derek Lyons remixed the song into a more dynamic contraption, with so much shifting action in the arrangement that it feels like a condensed musical version of The Hero's Journey, which is really cool. I still like this rough mix, though, which shimmers and sighs but is too comfortable to move around much. I am convinced that it is by far the best song I will ever be involved with. The final version is on the Shamgar's Oxgoad EP, about which I hope to write more in the near future. In the meantime, right-click here to download the rough mix. Hope you enjoy.

Yes, this was certainly an absolutely amazing cat.

That lovely creature on the left, the one getting the furry eyeball from Cora, is Dinah the cat. (You may ignore the rubbish surrounding them; this picture was taken in the midst of a decluttering process that I assure you has left our house looking less like a featured case on Hoarders and more like, oh, the set of American Buffalo. No miracles were performed, in other words, but it's a start.)

Dinah came to live with Bev and me about a month ago, because Bev's sister, Audrey, relocated to their parents' house, and their dad is severely allergic to cats. Dinah had, in fact, lived here for a couple years with Audrey and Bev before I knew any of them--and we are still unearthing the hairballs to prove it--so Dinah settled back in quickly and wasted no time getting reacquainted with Bev. She warmed up to me quickly as well, cautiously nuzzling my leg while I'd sit here doing my transcription work, then hopping away after I scratched her head a couple times, and then circling around and doing it all again. She wasn't much interested in exploring the house beyond this room, or at least she didn't want us to notice she was exploring. A couple times, when Bev and I were sitting on the couch watching some terrible thing (Bitchin' Kitchen, say), I'd notice a shadow bolting through the hallway and then slinking back moments later, relieved to have confirmed that the kitchen still stood. More often, though, if she was on a trajectory to leave the computer room, she would decide at the last second that it was more interesting to rub her face all over the door jamb, and would then toddle back in here and fall asleep next to the heat register or sit on top of my Casio and stare out the window. She was very full of herself and adorable.

You have noticed, I'm sure, that I am speaking of Dinah in the past tense. You know where this story is going, and, baby, it ain't "happily ever after." (Shut up, I am too allowed to write like a member of the Rat Pack.)

On Sunday, Bev and I noticed that Dinah was doing a lot of panting and hadn't been eating, so we agreed that I'd take her to the vet the following day just to make sure nothing was wrong. (Our local vet clinic is not open on Sundays, and Dinah didn't seem like she was in any sort of distress that would necessitate a visit to the emergency vet. She was still prancing around, purring as she submitted to head scratches, and foppishly twitching her tail.) So yesterday morning I called the vet and set up an appointment for the afternoon. At that point, Dinah was hanging out under our bed, on a spare pillow. Not unusual, apart from the continued panting.

When the time came to head to the clinic, it wasn't much of a struggle to get Dinah into the kitty carrier. I'd had no prior experience inserting a cat into a travel crate, and many of my friends' cat stories led me to expect a battle (I'd donned a long-sleeved shirt to guard against my forearms being whittled to the bone like a frenched rack of lamb), but although Dinah clearly wasn't crazy about the idea and let out some frustrated mews, it only took me a couple minutes to coax her inside. As I carried her to the car, I could feel her trying to get settled in the carrier, and I spent the seven-minute ride to the vet apologizing to her for the stress and reassuring her that I wasn't trying to be mean at all, but was taking her someplace to help her feel better. The upbeat, calming tone was for her. The words were for me. Obviously.

When I arrived at the clinic and lifted her tote out of the car, though, she wasn't moving or breathing. I could see through the carrier's mesh window that her mouth was hanging open, one white strand of saliva trailing from her paw to her fang, and her green eyes were frozen open and staring at nothing, pupils enormous and terrified. I dashed inside and the receptionist hustled me into the surgery prep area behind the examination rooms. I didn't watch as the vet hoisted Dinah from the kitty carrier and performed CPR. Instead I stared at a very woozy Alaskan husky waking up from anesthesia at my feet. After a couple minutes, the vet put down her tools, turned to me, and gently started into the list of efforts they'd made to save Dinah, which it seems is the accepted method of getting the message "We've done all we can do" across in as professional a manner as possible.

The vet told me that Dinah's panting was likely a symptom of the final stage of heart disease, and her heart had finally given out in the car. She said, "Cats are so sneaky" about hiding signs of illness that the vet herself probably wouldn't have been able to spot anything wrong if we'd brought her in before the panting started. I assume that was her way of telling me that there is nothing we could have done differently to prevent Dinah's death. Maybe she was telling the truth or maybe it was a white lie. I appreciate the effort either way. I don't fully believe it, though that doubt is clearly not a constructive way of thinking. After all, it happened the way it happened and there's no getting her back with a promise to be more perceptive this time around. Even if my best efforts to take care of her weren't good enough, it's probably best to believe that nobody's best efforts could reasonably have been. Maybe it's self-deceiving, maybe it's not, but it's the perspective that makes the most sense for purposes of mental self-preservation. I'll try.

I paid the $35 cremation fee at the front desk, where the sweet receptionist started crying and offered condolences. I mostly held it together until I got to the car, and I managed to stave off the full-on Losing My Shit stage for seven more minutes, until I arrived home.

During the computer room clean-out process that Bev and I undertook as our weekend project, we put together a nook in the closet that we thought Dinah might have enjoyed as a hangout. I folded a piece of foam batting into a little tube in which I thought she'd have fun napping, if she felt like fantasizing about being a Japanese business traveler. Bev painstakingly arranged various boxes and shelves into a series of steps leading up to a comforter on which Dinah could perch and survey the room if she wasn't in the mood to deal with the dogs. (Bubba in particular wanted so desperately to be her friend that Dinah visibly felt like he was coming on a little strong. They would have become good friends in time, but if Bubba were a human, his initial response to your OKCupid profile would read, "LET'S MOVE IN TOGETHER!!!") I sat in here yesterday, staring at the unused little kitty sanctum we'd constructed, and bawled. Dinah was 13 and had lived a full and exciting life--with Audrey, she'd done stints in Boston, Cleveland, and Mexico, which I have to think made her pretty worldly by feline standards--but she was new to me, and all I could think was how tragic it was that she never got to experience this ramshackle little playground in the closet.

Bev tells me that, even though I never had a chance to become as close with Dinah as I hoped to, the little fluffball must have liked me a lot already: "If she didn't like you, you would have never seen her. She was good at not being found when she didn't want to be found." I'm glad we got to be buddies quickly, and she spent so much of her time in this house sleeping in a posture of pure decadent sloth that I am sure her final weeks were mostly happy ones.

But I still feel like I failed her. She was only here for a month--I've had rhinoviruses that I spent more time with than I got to spend with Dinah--but it was ample time for her to become so important to me that her absence makes me like the world significantly less. On top of that, I'm never going to shake the frightened rictus on the face that was no longer looking back at me when I peered into her carrier in the parking lot. Regardless of whether there's anything I should have done differently, it's impossible to see that expression on the empty face of an animal you love and not feel like a monster because she died feeling that way while she was in your care.

I'm so sorry, Dinah.


The most puppy drool since Turner & Hooch.

Our digital camera broke a couple months ago. More accurately, Bev and I broke our digital camera a couple months ago. By dropping it from the end of a literal 20-foot pole onto the ice at the local skating rink. You see, Bev, her friend Michael, and (to a far lesser degree) I had spent a long time painting the Ice Wizards logo into center ice, and we were trying to get a picture of it from a decent angle. So in the never-say-die and never-think-things-through spirit of American invention, we tied it to the end of the pole and set the picture timer, and I hoisted the pole straight up over my head with the lens pointing down. The picture turned out okay:

The camera, however, predictably plummeted to its doom milliseconds after the above was snapped.

Bev and I finally got around to buying a replacement camera, and we saved a few simoleons by getting a used one from an Amazon seller in Iowa. When it arrived yesterday, however, we discovered that the seller forgot to clear her pictures from the memory card before mailing it to us. Being the unscrupulous people we are, these 253 photos were immediately transferred to our computer, and we had a fun few minutes flipping through them. Nothing embarrassing and nothing that smacks of international espionage, which I guess is anticlimactic in a way, but the Found fan in me still found a lot to love about the sweet collection of shots documenting the get-togethers, vacations, and school projects of a family I will never meet. I've decided that there's really no harm in sharing a few of the ones I liked best, so you too can enjoy a frisson of voyeuristic pleasure. Collapse )

CURRENT MUSIC: Score by Village of Savoonga.
CURRENT MOOD: Respectful.
CURRENT ASSESSMENT OF KATHY GRIFFIN: She is smugly witless. This assessment hasn't changed since the days of Suddenly Susan, but as always, I vow to keep you apprised of the situation.

You miss 100% of the rejection slips you don't apply for.

To begin with, my computer is fixed and I would be recording music again if I had time. I have not had time. I have been busy transcribing speeches and interviews from any number of bottomlessly terrible people ranging from a representative of the Monsanto Edible Abominations Against God and Nature corporation (NYSE: MEAAGN!!!) to one of the Bush administration's many draftsmen of global economic ruin, Hank Paulson. I suppose it's reasonably ironic that my dreams of one day being able to sell out my ideals by licensing one of my original songs to an ad campaign for a gross multinational corporation for an absurdly large sum of money have been deferred by my immediate need to sell out my ideals by recording for posterity the pitter-patter of unchecked capitalist greed for pitiably less money.

And for further irony, considering the irresponsibly-difficult-to-parse nature of the previous sentence, I am speaking to you today because Adrienne has prevailed upon me to assemble a writing portfolio and I require your assistance.

Though it's not much in evidence lately, I do really love to write. And although mental health concerns led me to bow out of a couple of low-pressure opportunities to do so in my mid-20s, it's still probably the thing I'm best at and, as Adrienne pointed out, it's kind of dumb not to try to make something good happen as a result of that. As such, it makes sense for me to have a properly vetted bundle of clips handy, since I inevitably make poor choices if I'm asked to assemble a selection on short notice. (I can't remember the exact circumstances, but I have a distinct memory of realizing too late that I'd responded to a prospective employer's request for a writing sample by submitting a piece that contained an unfortunate deployment of the word dildo.) The problem is I really have no idea what pieces I've written might comprise a strong case that I have some sort of skill in that area.

The Soul Coughing primer I wrote for No Ripcord was apparently considered informative enough that it's been linked from Soul Coughing's Wikipedia page, but, as with most of the music criticism I wrote at age 22, it kind of has a know-it-all vibe that makes me cringe in retrospect. I do like that track-by-track review of The Best of the 80's Decade I wrote a couple months back. Maybe that's a contender?

I think my favorite thing I've ever written is The Disclaimer Adam Baldwin Review Archive, simply because it's an inexcusably silly project that gave me a lot of different things to write about, but it's way, way too long to be useful as a snapshot of my "talent" or "style." I guess maybe I could compile a few selections from the longer piece? Is that a good idea? (I also really like the fake news article I wrote about a fictional Jack the Ripper museum in Boston, but that's really just more silliness with no weight or purpose to it, and I'm leaning toward excluding that as well.)

I really am feeling kind of baffled about what I might include in this portfolio, uncharacteristically enthusiastic as I actually am about the idea of putting it together, so I am turning to you. Not that I expect anyone looking at this to have retained anything of mine they've read, let alone to have any sort of "favorites," but just in case there's a dangerously obsessive lurker out there who was intensely impressed by something I once said, now's the time to let me know of your existence by bestowing specific accolades upon me! I would also greatly appreciate any sort of feedback or direction the other seven of you might be able to provide (beyond "Don't let the Washington Post draw you into a life of indentured servitude").

Okay, back to typing up the many virtues of Monsanto's luxurious new breed of technologically blessed dairy cows. Eyes replaced by LED stock tickers! Udders emit pleasing bagpipe dirges when milked! 80% greater cognizance of the cruel, cruel cosmic joke their very existence constitutes!

CURRENT MUSIC: Winking Makes a Face by Tadd Mullinix.
CURRENT MOOD: Angry, almost always.

Hey, Internet! Computer help please!

Hey, Internet! I need your help if you know anything about computer processor problems or can at least direct me to a message board populated with appropriately knowledgeable folk. Allow me to describe the problem using the format of your typical House episode, without the increasingly tone-deaf interpersonal dynamics.

THE BIG PROBLEM: I had to rebuild the computer I record my songs into, and now it's recording everything at a faster tempo than I'm actually singing or playing it. For instance, if I record a vocal track on top of a song I recorded before rebuilding the computer, upon playback my voice quickly starts picking up speed and going faster than the rest of the song. (The acceleration isn't comically fast or anything; the affected track will fall audibly out of sync in about 15 seconds, and will be out of step by a second or two by the end of the song.) This obviously means I can't record anything until the problem is resolved, because although my songs may be short on technical precision in the first place, I'd like to think that their general unlistenability is unrelated to the separate instruments operating at radically different velocities.


WHAT WE KNOW: I've verified that playback proceeds at the correct speed, so the recording rate itself seems to be the problem. Also, I don't use MIDI for anything; I just record live audio into the computer. The machine is running Windows XP and the processor is an Intel Pentium E6500. The motherboard is a Gigabyte brand G31M-ES2L, if that helps. (Adorably, the Gigabyte driver download site writes, "For better download quality, it is recommended to use the download monitor shareware like Flashget, Getright...etc for reserving your treasure time and effort.")

FAILED DIAGNOSIS #1: I've eliminated the sound card as the cause, as I switched in a new sound card--with proper drivers installed for each--and had the same problem.

FAILED DIAGNOSIS #2: I've also tried recording in several different programs (Cakewalk, Cool Edit, even the basic Windows Sound Recorder) and had the same problem, so that's not it either.

FAILED DIAGNOSIS #3: And I reinstalled the chipset drivers just to be safe. That was a further pointless waste of my time.

FAILED DIAGNOSIS #4: One of Bev's coworkers suggested my processor might be overclocked, so I downloaded the CPU-Z program, which gave me the following info about how my processor is currently operating:

Core speed: 1600 MHz
Multiplier: x 6.0
Bus speed: 266 MHz
Rated FSB: 1066 MHz

So that coworker said those numbers don't sound like it's overclocked. (He then used some math to prove it to me, but trying to understand math makes me feel like I'm being mildly walloped with a foam therapy bat, so I took his word for it.)

FINAL EPIPHANY MOMENT: That's where you come in.

Please, please comment or e-mail me if you can assist. Any ideas of what I might do or what resources I might check out would be very much appreciated. If you require any extra information, I'll do my best to provide it. Thanks very much in advance!

CURRENT MUSIC: My record collection on shuffle. Last 10 songs: "Sin the Sailor" by When, "Seeing Other People" by Belle & Sebastian, "California Man" by Cheap Trick, "Every Lover's Sign" by The Lover Speaks, "Toadies" by the Minutemen, "U-Mass" by the Pixies, "Jerusalem" by The Fall, "El Bebe Masoquista" by Fatboy Slim, "The Weight of My Words (Four Tet remix)" by Kings of Convenience, and "Devotion '92" by Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf.
CURRENT MOOD: Immensely frustrated.

New Disclaimer song: "(The) Hale Boggs/Bopp"

Here's a new Disclaimer song I recorded, "(The) Hale Boggs/Bopp." Figured I should share something, since it's been six years since I've "released" a new song, and I think this is the best one I've ever written. (I know, it's a stubby yardstick against which to measure, like saying, "This is Eric Schaeffer's most enlightened work!" or "Chad is the least repugnant human being on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange!" Still.)

Disclaimer: "(The) Hale Boggs/Bopp"

Lyrics, if you're interested:

Something unknown has curdled the waters
We are inured to licking flyswatters
We're conditioned to react by cocooning
Weapons mistaken for spiders ballooning

This one will likely be the last song on the potentially forthcoming new Disclaimer album, They Burned for 18 Days, so this is what you'll miss when you turn it off early in exasperation.

CURRENT MUSIC: There is Love in You by Four Tet.
CURRENT MOOD: Amused by snoring puppies.


Our best is none too good!

As one of the world's leading aficionados and practitioners of human folly, I recently spent $2.50 on one of the St. Clair Entertainment Group's "Essentials" compilations entitled The Best of the 80's Decade, which was released in 2004. Far from being another predictable regurgitation of '80s-for-dummies standards like "Too Shy" and "99 Luftballoons" that everyone already owns on four compilations apiece, this one runs so counter to all expectations both of content and quality that it piqued my curiosity. 

First off, the title itself does a pretty good job of illustrating the caliber of the package. Even discounting the misplaced apostrophe in "80's," it's pretty wonderful that they added the word "decade" to clarify that this CD does not contain unusually memorable murmurings of octogenarians. But that's still not what makes this disc such a monumental rip-off that it begs to be analyzed in scrupulous detail.

The reason we're discussing it here, and the reason I picked it up in the first place, is the tiny disclaimer on the back of the digipak: "New stereo recordings by the original artists except selections marked (*) are live recordings." So the versions of the songs contained herein are not the versions made famous on the airwaves 20 to 30 years ago. They're... different. And yet, rather than simply assembling a cheapo house band to record soundalike covers as Madacy Entertainment does in an effort to hoodwink unsuspecting record buyers, St. Clair bothered to hire the songs' original artists to submit new tracks... in an effort to hoodwink unsuspecting record buyers.

It's a counterintuitive capital expenditure, to be sure--particularly since, although I have never contacted a record label to get a quote on licensing a popular old single, there are plenty of '80s chestnuts that are ubiquitous enough to suggest that their use isn't cost prohibitive. For example, the familiar studio version of the Vapors' "Turning Japanese" has appeared in compilation series ranging from Rhino's typically elaborate Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the '80s to Priority Records' spartan Rock of the 80's. I grant that you might not be able to afford the rights to, say, "Hungry Like the Wolf," but if you're a label like St. Clair who has (apparently) made a successful business of repackaging proper studio recordings of artists like Van Morrison and Bob Marley, surely you have the budget to at least assemble a facelessly serviceable collection of second- or third-tier singles like "Der Kommissar" or "Tell It to My Heart" in their comparatively desirable, original incarnations.

It's just a very weird gambit, not as consumer-screwingly cheap as it could stand to be, but simultaneously not the slightest bit respectable. The whole compilation is so crappy and odd that it actually provides a bit of insight into the represented artists themselves, though it's up to interpretation whether their presence indicates a desire for quick cash, a particularly sad bid for relevance and rediscovery, or an easygoing willingness to play along with anyone who wants to release their music. So let's go track by track:

1. Irene Cara: "Flashdance (What a Feeling)" Ms. Cara, of D.C. Cab fame, is given the lead-off spot on this disc because she audibly entered the studio with the intent of creating a fairly precise facsimile of her original single. Even 20 years after the song's initial release, her voice is in fine fettle, and the new arrangement is faithful to the old one right down to the beats per minute. Though the purpose of The Best of the 80's Decade is obviously to fool the listener, Cara seems to gamely have tried to deliver a recording as close to what the listener thinks she's getting as possible, and I don't think most casual observers would notice the subtle differences in synth tone and the like. Sadly, her respect for the audience ultimately serves as misdirection, because the big switcheroo is about to become evident...

2. Berlin: "Take My Breath Away" (Remix) ...And here's where the naive buyer will realize she was cheated. Rather than being welcomed by the iconic, swollen synth bass that you're envisioning, this wholly new recording (not actually a remix) opens with that figure timidly pecked out on a piano, and it's quickly joined by a muffled beat and breathy backing vocals straight out of Enigma's atrocious "Return to Innocence." A little later, the band attempts to scuff things up a bit with trip-hop keyboards and distorted drums--and it's enough to make me think a full-on Portishead retooling would have been somewhat interesting--but it doesn't come close to penetrating the wax atop the adult contemporary cheese here. (Incidentally, the defining moment of this entire sorry CD occurs at 2:02 here, where the engineer evidently bumped the master gain knob by accident, because the song suddenly and inexplicably gets a lot louder than the first half was. Quality control!)

3. Bret Michaels & Friends: "Every Rose Has It's Thorn" [sic] (Acoustic) This collection does not contain any specific credits for the recordings, so it's impossible to say who these mysterious "friends" backing Bret up might be. Given that the accompaniment consists of a single acoustic guitar, I would wager that the "friends" rubric encompasses exactly one person. I have an inkling of how the discussion of artist billing proceeded, too. Let's say the guitarist's name was Pete Strumhands:

PETE: So what name should we publish this recording under? "Bret Michaels featuring Pete Strumhands"? "Bret Michaels & Pete Strumhands"? "Bret 'n' Pete"?
BRET: It's just going to be "Bret Michaels."
PETE: Well, uh, but doesn't that imply that you alone recorded this song? I mean, I'm the one who actually had to bring some musical skill into the studio, whereas you just distractedly mumbled your vocal track while filling out a bunch of "bill me later" magazine subscription cards under C.C. Deville's name.
BRET: Fine, you prima... vera! Fine. It'll be "Bret Michaels & Friends." You happy?
PETE: Couldn't I get an actual credit? Especially since you're paying me for this session with a check that's postdated to 2013, I feel like I should get some sort of acknowledgment in return.
BRET: Oh, sure, because that's going to make the difference between someone buying this CD and not: whether Paul Dicknose is listed on the sleeve. It's "Bret Michaels & Friends" and you're lucky you're getting that.
PETE: Shouldn't it be "Bret Michaels & Friend," singular, since it's just me?
BRET: [exasperated sighChicks like me, man. Female chicks. I don't need them thinking you and I are, like, doin' it.
PETE: How does that make--
BRET: I do too have friends! Lots of... friends...

At any rate, since Poison's original single was about as edgy as a billiard ball, it really doesn't lose much if you strip out the electric guitar, keyboards, and rhythm section. Obviously it's here only to serve nostalgia needs, since your memory would have to be troublingly faulty to remember "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" as a song of any merit, and it'll serve that purpose just fine. Still, can we all please make a pact to doing a universal find-and-replace on this song, instead swapping in Arab Strap's melodically similar yet completely superior "The Week Never Starts Round Here" any time the Poison track might seem called for in life? I have to think that would extend our planet's lifespan by at least 50 years.

4. Night Ranger: "Sister Christian" (live) If I thought The Best of the 80's Decade's tracklist was consciously assembled to give a broader view of the decade's popular music than most new wave-heavy compilations do--and not just a catch-all for any band willing to contribute, regardless of genre--I might be inclined to give the St. Clair folks a few points for including this slick power ballad. Which isn't to say it necessarily deserves a second life with a 21st-century audience, mind you, but I certainly remember hearing egregiously overinflated arena rockers like this all over the place when I was a kid, and its presence is a nice nod to the fact that '80s radio wasn't all whipping it, becoming blinded with science, and coming on Eileen. An appreciative Japanese audience roots Night Ranger on as they sweatily proffer Elton John-derived verses and hilariously clumsy lyrics like, "Where you goin'? What you looking for?/You know those boys don't want to play no more/With you/It's true." Even so, it's far from unlistenable. The tempo lags and Kelly Keagy's vocal flourishes are predictably silly, but it's crisply recorded in a way that does justice to the anthemic harmonies. I could see myself putting this on a mix for a friend, just to be slightly obnoxious, and yet not feeling like I've totally wasted that space on the CD.

5. Stray Cats: "Stray Cat Strut" I suppose studio chatter has a rarefied use on commercial releases: The "You fucking die!" bit on the Pixies' Surfer Rosa nicely amplifies the album's (and Frank Black's, in particular) half-joking aggression, and the Ramones' mercenary, unsentimental approach to recording is pretty well exemplified in the hysterical intro to "Danger Zone" on Too Tough to Die. However, an interminable two minutes of the Stray Cats uneventfully discussing which song to play, tuning up, and then launching into the song only after a false start basically just ensures that no one will want to listen to this track twice. Big fans of the slinky jazz-pop hit--and I don't count myself among their numbers--will at least be pleased to know that by passing it by, they will only be missing out on a bloodless run-through that sounds like it was recorded onto a ratty, tinny cassette boombox.

6. Bow Wow Wow: "I Want Candy" I'm not sure of Malcolm McLaren's involvement in Bow Wow Wow these days, but the band's submission to The Best of the 80's Decade is so cynically misguided that it's only logical to place the blame with the man who arguably holds more claim to the phrase "cynically misguided" than anyone in the entertainment world save Uwe Boll. Though this isn't noted as a remix (which I suppose makes a backward sort of sense, given that the non-remix "Take My Breath Away" is indicated as such), it does include Annabella Lwin's original husky vocal track from the 1982 single. Nothing else is even close to that source, however; gone are the ricocheting rhythms and the ingratiating surf guitar, and along with them everything you might have liked about the song itself. Instead, it's stupidly rebuilt as a dour, mainstream-industrial track, with monotonous sequencers and glossily heavy guitars that sound about as daring and current as the music from Mortal Kombat. My guess is that this was McLaren-or-whoever's gormless attempt at a zeitgeist grab, but by 2004 this sound was popular only with the producers of CBS procedurals whose more squalid scenes required noisy songs that wouldn't be abrasive enough to prompt the viewer to turn the volume down before the next commercial break. At any rate, its joyless thumpery completely betrays the rollicking good cheer of the '80s version.

7. Todd Rundgren featuring Tony Levin: "Bang on the Drum" I have no idea why this song isn't listed as "Bang the Drum All Day" (its actual name), nor why the name of bassist Tony Levin is listed in a larger font than Rundgren's. The song's overstimulated spirit is here, from Rundgren's staccato yelps to Levin's percolating solo, but the production pushes this thing over the line from being an agreeably goofy pop whirligig to an active nuisance. Given Rundgren's bona fides as a producer both of his own pristine-sounding albums and of others', it wouldn't surprise me to learn that this determinedly chintzy arrangement was a joke; that the awful slap bass and cheesy synth horns are part of a sarcastic exercise in poor taste. Which would be a funny enough idea, but only in an academic way that doesn't require actually listening to the final product. Thanks to those inescapable and insufferable Carnival Cruise Lines commercials that feature John Krasinski smarmily narrating atop the original song, the past few months have met my "Bang the Drum All Day" requirements for the next 40 years, but even if that weren't the case, I would never want to sit through this headache again.

8. Gary Numan: "Cars" (live) I have nothing but affection for "Cars," Numan's ode to the human disconnection and isolation that would thrive in earnest in the '80s, thanks to technology like the home computer, the Walkman, and, of course, the increasingly cocoonlike interiors of automobiles. It may not be as eloquently conceived as something like Kraftwerk's Computer World or as cutting as Devo, but "Cars"' jerky assembly line rhythms and believably automated arrangement make a fine case for both the charm and soullessness of the plastic age. The live arrangement is tight and nearly identical to the single version, though to my mind the song loses some of its passionless fiberglass charm when you remove it from the hermetically sealed studio environment. (Numan himself seems unable to resist investing his vocals with a frankly unwelcome degree of humanity.) I doubt most people would care, though, and it's still the smartest, most genuinely enjoyable song on the album.

9. Night Ranger: "Rock in America (You Can Still)" (live) So if this disc is to be believed, Night Ranger was responsible for a solid 20% of the '80s decade's most resonant and enduring music. Not a bad batting average. I couldn't say for sure that I've ever heard this song before, though. It seems to be from the same Tokyo show as the "Sister Christian" recording above (so no points for guessing whether Night Ranger doubles their list of nations in which rocking remains permissible, to the raucous delight of the crowd, by song's end), but this song plays up macho rock excess over obsequious power balladry, with equally dumb but less memorable results. It's not as expertly mixed as their previous entry either; the keyboardist doesn't have much of a part during the verses--just a couple plinky notes per line--and yet that's the instrument that stands out above the chugging cock-rock guitars, at least until the whole thing devolves into an uproar of technically impressive but musically inutile guitar gymnastics. (The sort of thing that even hard rock ironists like the Electric Six avoid soiling their songs with.)

10. Go West: "The King of Wishful Thinking" (live) And what better way to cap St. Clair Entertainment's discriminating, definitive treasury of '80s essentials than the second-biggest hit from the Pretty Woman soundtrack, which was released in 1990? I remember very much enjoying this song as a 10-year-old, but the state fair live performance captured here is so astonishingly lame that I can't even understand or excuse my previous fondness by pointing to a stunted prepubescent sense of music appreciation that also led me to purchase cassingles by Another Bad Creation and Tony! Toni! Tone! (Did the Pretty Woman arrangement have that godawful pan flute-style synth I'm hearing?) Peter Cox's vocal range seems to have slipped a few notes in recent years, so a female vocalist is brought in to double his part on the chorus, but neither singer seems to want to bear the load of the song's hook, so they sort of hesitantly coo their way through. Cox did get a couple good laughs out of me, though, with the incongruously celebratory way he grunts lines like "You made a hole in my heart!" but overall, this is an appropriately embarrassing end to an embarrassing collection.

Finally, I should also note that the scant liner notes include an unhelpful rundown of the decade's prevailing trends before presenting a random list of "some of the most popular groups and recording artists to come from the Eighties" that strangely includes Tina Turner and ZZ Top(!) alongside such influential megastars as T'Pau and Sheena Easton. (It also lists both George Michael and Wham!)

So what are we to make of this CD? I haven't a clue. There's obviously no shortage of cut-rate music product out there that attempts to turn a conservative profit via the resale of songs whose popularity has long since settled to an unexciting level of consumer regard that's just on the favorable side of "aloof." But I have never come across a collection whose approach and existence is so baffling to me. The numerous mistakes in the tracklist point to an inexcusably half-assed assembly, but by seeking the approval of the songs' performers rather than their (presumably less emotionally invested) labels, surely someone at St. Clair was interested in releasing a quality product, right? In fact, since '80s pop has got to be the most frequently anthologized subgenre since the invention of compact discs, it almost seems like the "new recordings by the original artists" concept could have been a means of differentiating this collection from the dozens of interchangeable, K-tel-style compilations available. But if it were intended as a selling point, you wouldn't bury it in 6-point font toward the bottom of the CD case. Nothing about The Best of the 80's Decade makes the slightest bit of sense.

So congratulations, St. Clair: Whatever contradictory cocktail of cynicism, incompetence, desperation, innovation, and/or apathy you were gulping when you put this package together, I cannot begin to fathom the recipe. The Best of the 80's Decade is nothing if not unique in the world of bargain-basement pop cannibalism, and I'm happy I purchased it instead of using that $2.50 on half a Frappucino.

CURRENT MUSIC: The In the Fishtank EP by Sparklehorse and Fennesz.
CURRENT MOOD: Continuing to feel broken by Mark Linkous's suicide. And not in the lovely way that his music always makes me feel broken. Listening to Sparklehorse feels like watching time-lapse photography of a neglected church collapsing and eventually sprouting new, green life. It's a slow, serendipitous ballet of decomposition and entropy that, if you stare at it long enough, is revealed to contain all the gloriously futile secrets of life. Hearing that Mark couldn't find enough of that beauty in his own life to want to keep living it, conversely, feels like being blasted by an underwater mine; an explosion of violent hollowness. It sucks.
CURRENT FAVORITE OBSERVATION: From Jess, re: a publicity still of a teenage Nicole Kidman starring in BMX Bandits: "Nicole Kidman was a hideous teen! Gah! I bet she smelled like kool-aid and b.o."

It adds great flavor!

Some of my friends named Amanda question why Bev and I devote so much time to watching Sandra Lee's "put blindly selected ingredients in a pile and call it a recipe" cooking shows. I've tried to explain all about the baby food muffins, the Hannukah hams, the fever dream that is the "Sunset Clambake" episode, the manic fugue state our host enters whenever she detects one part per million of alcohol in the surrounding air... And still the entertainment value seems to elude them.

Well, this oughta convince the doubters. For her daily Cocktail Time, Sandra made a concoction of lemonade, heavy cream, and vodka, and then took a generous gulp in anticipation of something delicious. Her face tells a different story, as you can see in this frame-by-frame video Bev and I assembled.

(This is the second take of the video. Bev's laughter shook the camera so hard during the first one that the result reached Cloverfield levels of nauseousness.)